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Too often, our education system sends the one in five children with learning and attention issues into the world without the skills they need to succeed.

These students are as smart as their peers but they are surrounded by the false perception that they are lazy and incapable. When others wrongly perceive them as unintelligent and hold them to lower standards, self-doubt sets in and self-confidence diminishes. But when they are empowered to understand their strengths and supported in reaching their goals, these children can soar.

Given the stigma often surrounding learning and attention issues, it’s no wonder students with learning disabilities attend four-year colleges at half the rate of other students, and those who do attend often have a hard time once there. Only one in four students with learning disabilities disclose their disabilities to their colleges, leaving them without access to critical accommodations and putting them at greater risk of leaving school without a degree.

Related: Special education’s hidden racial gap

So why does this happen?

Students with learning and attention issues are faced with the shame of being perceived as lazy or unintelligent, and many worry their peers will perceive them as getting an unfair advantage if they request accommodations.

They may not realize how important accommodations are to their success in school, and they often don’t know what kinds of services are available in college or what particular supports and accommodations they need.

Related: How one district solved the special education dropout problem

Each of us — parents, educators and others who work with students—must play a role in changing this reality. It requires us to shift our perception of students with learning and attention issues and rethink how we support them.

Early recognition of learning and attention issues combined with evidence-based instruction from trained educators can eliminate the stigma surrounding these issues. Students with learning and attention issues are smart and can succeed. Only when mindsets and practices acknowledge this fact will these students be held to high expectations and be given a real chance to reach their goals.

The most critical step in this process is changing how students with learning and attention issues see themselves. Self-advocacy skills and a sense of ownership over the learning process should be developed early and regularly put into practice so students understand how they learn, where they struggle and how to advocate for the support they need.

Related: Almost all students with disabilities are capable of graduating on time. Here’s why they’re not.

Starting no later than sixth grade, it is crucial that we encourage students to begin thinking about opportunities after high school and recognize that a college education is possible. Parents and educators can use the Individualized Education Program (IEP) meeting each year as an opportunity to discuss the student’s goals, inviting the student to attend the meetings and encouraging his or her participation in discussions about the future.

It’s instinctual for parents to take on the role of advocate when their child is young, but transferring that role to students by the end of high school is crucial to their success. When students leave high school, different laws apply and students—not parents—bear the responsibility of seeking accommodations.

Related: The vast majority of students with disabilities don’t get a college degree

Yet even when students reach college prepared with the necessary self-advocacy skills, there are still barriers to success that policy can play an important role in removing.

There is federal legislation on the horizon aimed at easing the burden placed on students and making it easier for them to receive accommodations in college.

The Respond, Innovate, Succeed, and Empower (RISE) Act requires colleges to accept a student’s IEP or 504 plan as evidence of disability, eliminating the need for recent neuropsychological evaluations, which can cost families thousands of dollars out of pocket.

There is federal legislation on the horizon aimed at easing the burden placed on students and making it easier for them to receive accommodations in college.

It also provides funding to train faculty to support students with disabilities, helping to eliminate stigma and change mindsets in college. This type of policy change is necessary to ensure that all students are given equal opportunities to access and succeed in postsecondary education, and that they are encouraged to explore college as an option earlier in their education.

As a community of parents, educators and advocates, we must come together to eliminate stigma. If we can change what the world expects of students with learning and attention issues, we can change how these students see the world and allow them to dream big. The responsibility is on all of our shoulders to erase stigma, equip students with skills they need to succeed, and create conditions that allow all students to thrive in school and in life.

This story was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up here for our newsletter.

Mimi Corcoran is the president and CEO of the National Center for Learning Disabilities.

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  1. Thank you for this interesting Op Ed. My observation has been that while my child has revealed his learning disability and attention issues to his college, the only assistance they provide is to create accommodations. He also has to reapply for every class. He does not receive any assistance with executive functioning, planning, scheduling from the special needs department. He is attending a state community college. The comparison to my older son’s highly reputable state university is interesting and inequitable. His university offers executive functioning assistance to any student who feels they need it. There is a real need for further guidance and assistance for students with learning difficulties, not simply accommodations.

  2. I am one of many students at a local college, with disabilities. I have been labeled and I refused to let it stop me. I received assistance from a very compassionate and skilled leader at this college who helped me see my potential. Last December I received my AA degree and now I am on my to earning my BAS in Sustainability. I found myself unemployed at 55 after a very long 22 years as an LPN due to the fact that I didn’t have a degree (in 1991 LPN’s didn’t need a degree it was a technical school I attended and was licensed in Florida).If it wasn’t for Ms. Aimee Stubbs at Saint Petersburg College I would not be where I am today. (I’m not sure if I can submit her name) but I owe much of my success to her and my daughter who kept encouraging me to finish and move on.
    Thank You

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